Communities of practice – what they are and how to start one

May 21, 2022

Communities of practice – what they are and how to start one

You may not have heard of the term ‘community of practice’ before, but there’s a good chance you’ve been part of one. 

A community of practice is essentially a group of people who come together to improve at a skill or work towards a common goal through shared learning. This is different from communities that form around particular interests or products. 

Communities of practice offer powerful learning opportunities for their members. And when built and supported by businesses, they offer an effective alternative to traditional marketing strategies, positioning your company at the center of its industry.

In this article, we’ll cover: 

But first, let’s outline in more detail what a community of practice is. 

What is a community of practice?

Communities of practice form when practitioners of a certain skill or trade come together to pool knowledge, learn, and share best practices. Think professional clubs and associations, student study groups, artist collectives, and online communities that focus on a particular area of study or skill. 

Although they have probably existed since the dawn of civilization, the term itself is much more recent, coined in 1998 by anthropologists Jane Lave and Etienne Wenger, who were studying apprenticeships as a model of learning. 

During their studies, Lave and Wenger noticed that rather than only having a one-to-one relationship with a master, apprentices benefitted from a community of practitioners that acted as a sort of living curriculum. After coming up with the concept and name, they started to notice communities of practice everywhere. 

Communities of practice are defined by three key characteristics: 

The domain

Community members have a shared interest in an area, also known as a domain. This differentiates communities of practice from networks of colleagues or social groups.

The community

Members come together – either online or in-person – to further their interest or knowledge of the domain. This forms a community. Through regular interaction, community members make connections and form a network. 

The practice

Community members are not only interested in the domain, they are also practitioners in it. Through their experience, skill, and interactions, they work together to further their practice, developing a shared understanding of processes and terminology. 

Communities of practice are nothing new

From medieval guilds to modern-day professional associations, people have always come together to learn and share ideas. But in today’s digital world, communities of practice are experiencing a kind of renaissance. 

Thanks to the internet, it has never been easier for like-minded people to ‘gather.’ Where communities were once bound by location, people now meet in virtual forums, chat rooms, and community platforms, unlocking the power of communal learning for everyone, everywhere. 

What’s more, digital platforms allow information and learning to be ‘set in stone’ and recorded, providing an evergreen permanence to the learning process. 

The benefits of communities of practice

Communities of practice are all about communal learning, which is beneficial for the simple fact that more people mean more ideas, expertise, and experience. Essentially, communities of practice work because they: 

In addition to these tangible benefits, communities of practice also meet psychological needs, such as: 

Communities of practice can also be built and leveraged by businesses, allowing them to:

What about other types of communities? 

Generally speaking, a community is a group of people brought together by something in common – a shared interest, problem, goal, or location. While there are many ways we can classify communities, one of the most effective is to categorize them based on the motivation of members. 

Enter the Three Ps of community: Practice, Product, and Play. Let’s look at what each one means and how they differ. 

Communities of practice

As we have already discussed, what defines these communities is their members’ motivation to improve at a particular skill, trade, or practice. 

Communities of product

In these communities, people come together due to a shared interest in a particular product or service. Community members share best practices and success stories, ask and answer questions, and create and consume product-related content.

Communities of play

Rather than focus on a particular skill or product, members of this type of community share a common interest in a particular hobby, sport, or activity. Think communities interested in football, investing, mountain climbing, or gaming, for example. 

What differentiates communities of practice from other kinds of communities is that they are specifically geared toward shared learning and improving a particular skill. That said, there is often some overlap between these different types of communities. 

For example, a community of product where members come together to discuss product-related issues, solve problems, and define best practices will have some overlap with a community of practice. 

Rather than seeing these three types of community as hard categories, it’s best to view them as part of a wider spectrum.

Communities of practice vs product

Besides the myriad benefits for members, communities can also be a powerful tool for marketing and branding. Before you embark on your community journey, it’s important to consider which type of community is best for your business. 

While there are a lot of similarities between communities of practice and product, there are also key differences. These differences require different strategies and approaches to implement – and will yield different results for your business. Let’s look at some of the key differences between the two. 

Communities of practice: 

Communities of product:

There are many similarities between the two types of community. Both provide a space where like-minded people can share ideas and learn. The key difference is the scope of that learning – either solely about your product or about a practice associated with the industry your business serves. 

Your community doesn’t have to be one or the other. You might find a blend of both works for you, providing the best of both worlds for your company and community members. If you have a forum-style community platform, you might have one room dedicated to discussing your product and another room dedicated to discussing the wider industry. 

These are all important things to consider before you start building a community. If you already have a community up and running, it might be worth analyzing it to see what proportion of members are using it as a community of practice, and what proportion are using it as a community of product. 

How to start a community of practice

Starting a community of practice involves a good deal of planning and preparation. Here are some steps you can take to ensure you’re on the right track. 

  1. Outline the who and the what

Who is your community for? And what do you want it to achieve? You need to answer these simple questions before you move on to the how of community building. 

It’s also important to outline the underlying business goals or issues you want your community to address. Given that a community of practice isn’t product-specific, chances are your goals are more related to positioning your company as a leader in expertise in your field. 

  1. Understand key performance metrics

Building a community is one thing, ensuring that it’s a success is another. Without a solid understanding of what success looks like and the metrics you’ll use to measure it, you’re flying blind. 

Remember: you’ll need to use different metrics for a community of practice than for a community of product. The former offers a less direct marketing approach, focusing more on your company’s standing in the wider industry than the direct success of your product. 

  1. Get buy-in from the top

As with any community plan, you’ll need to get buy-in at the leadership and executive levels. Having outlined steps 1 and 2 of this list, you’ll be in a good position to explain the value proposition and get key people onside. 

But remember: community-building is a long-term play. It positions your business as a central pillar within your industry, which has long-term benefits for your brand. But there are no quick wins here. 

  1. Decide which platform(s) to use

Now it’s time to get technical. Which platform will you use, and why? Whether you pick an instant messaging platform like Slack or Discord, a forum site like Discourse, or build your very own, the choice you make will affect: 

  1. Onboard new members

Now it’s time to invite people to join your community. There are many ways you can approach this. You can invite people via your social channels, target leaders in your industry, or build the invitation process into your customer onboarding or success processes. 

Once your community is up and running and populated by enough people, it should grow organically, assuming it provides real value for community members.

That said, a community of practice lives or dies by the caliber of its members. People are there to learn, so you need to ensure a good balance between experienced practitioners and highly-motivated ‘newbies.’ You might find that a screening process ensures that new members bring real value to the community. 

  1. Provide value and engage 

To keep new members signing up and sticking around, you’ll need to ensure that they are engaged. You can do this in a number of ways, such as: 

Examples of communities of practice

Communities of practice are everywhere – from school clubs to professional associations, and everything in between. Let’s take a look at some examples of communities of practice in action. 

Mind the Product

Known as the world’s largest product community, Mind the Product is run by product people, for product people. 

Through a mixture of events, content, training, and workshops, this community of practice aims to unite product managers and designers both virtually and in-person to further their craft together. 

Stack Overflow

With over 100 million viewers and over 21 million questions asked to date, Stack Overflow is a ginormous virtual community for developers, coders, and technologists. 

Community members benefit from a truly global group of practitioners, empowering them to develop better technology through collective knowledge. 

Critique Circle

Critique Circle is a community of thousands of writers who work together to improve their writing skills. Members earn credits by reviewing other people’s work. Once they’ve earned enough credits, they can submit their own work and receive feedback from the community. 

There’s also a community forum, where members can discuss writing-related topics, as well as a wealth of useful content. 

Summary

We hope this article has given you a solid understanding of what a community of practice is and how it differs from other kinds of communities, allowing you to weigh up whether it’s the right kind of community for you to build. 

Before we finish, let’s sum up the key takeaways. 

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